Many years (decades? lordy, I’m old) ago I saw an interview with Billy Joel where he was asked: Did he think he was a “great” songwriter?
Rather than engage in false humility, he said: “Well, I think I am a good songwriter—but in an age of mediocre songwriting, that makes me a great songwriter.” Isn’t that great? I mean, what’s not to like about that answer?
I remember that whenever I think about how to estimate/rate/review any work of art. One of my favorite authors, Andew Vachss, as with most things, has a very direct and laser-focused take on this topic. Concerning writing:
“The lie is that writing is a meritocracy. The lie is that the cream rises to the top. The truth is that it’s a crap shoot. It’s a blind leech in a muddy swamp that swims along until it gets lucky and strikes a vein so it has some blood to suck on. It’s not a fist-fight. It’s not a weightlifting contest. It’s not a sprint. It’s not any ‘may the best man win’ because there is no objective standard for judging writing. At all.“
As a slight counterpoint, another of my favorites, Stephen R. Donaldson, said:
“Back in the days when I taught writing, I used to say (sometimes strenuously) that ‘Good is subjective: bad is objective.’ Just to pick one trivial example. Confusing pronoun reference is an ‘objective’ problem: a writer who can’t keep his/her pronouns straight actively prevents comprehension (which, I think we can all agree, is *not* a Good Thing). The same principle applies on every level of storytelling. But the farther we move from the objectively bad, the more we enter the domain of the subjective. I call Patricia McKillip ‘the most elegant and evocative stylist writing today.’ Someone else (this is purely hypothetical) might call her work ‘effete and juvenile.’ To such a reader, I could never *prove* that I was right. Nor could such a reader ever persuade me. No, I’m afraid that *time* is the only reliable judge.
I think both authors are correct. In the sludge of the aforementioned literary swamp, there sediment falls to the bottom. This is where you find people who are objectively bad at writing.
From my experience: when I used to do critiques on the critters website back in the day, I found that only about 20% of what I critiqued were “pretty good” overall, or better (Remember Sturgeon’s Law?).
There was another 30% that were “fair”. I mean, they had some good points; but, by the end, enough problems (like what Donaldson mentions above) had accumulated that I would not have recommended them to another reader as it being worth their time.
And, finally, about 50% of them were unreadable. I don’t mean that I hated them—I mean there was literally no reason to finish them. It was either impossible to follow what was happening or nothing was happening at all.
As an aside, a very thin sliver of the latter were what I put into the ‘aspiring literary fiction author’ category—that is, they had ample writing skills: but the stories were not setting out to tell stories at all, they were just trying to show off their writing. So their works were filled with flowery prose and oblique references or hints as to what might be occurring, or wads of purple prose stuffed under a few verbs here and there. So a person might have just gotten their legs chopped off in a combine, but that’s mentioned in an aside embedded in the avalanche of meticulously crafted metaphors that were used to describe the farm, before and after that. It sort of cracks me up that some of those authors will get lucrative book deals with major publishing houses before I do, but as Glenn says from behind the counter in Wayne’s World: “The world is a twisted place.”
Marketability is literally the last thing I considered as I was writing my latest novel. As I continue through the querying process, I think I am quickly collecting literary agents and editors who would attest to that. But, early on, I did go to Amazon and (using that cool “Look Inside!” feature) perused just about every recent, best-selling/recommended urban fantasy that I could find. This time around, looking at finished works, the amount of “unreadable”s went way down, but they all just shifted up into the “Fair” category. Still the same percentage of good ones.
Sturgeon’s Law remained in effect.
For my part, I have avoided getting into the ‘let’s trade reviews’ game, although I understand that—in order to market my upcoming novel—there likely will need to be some of that. But I do want to throw some positive karma out into the Literasphere…
…So please find below a list of stories I’ve finished so far during 2020. This list isn’t comprehensive, but it is representative and I can heartily recommend all of these as (in my opinion) excellent.
√ Hollow World by Michael J. Sullivan (2014). Any science fiction novel that can say something fresh about time travel deserves major props. This is a wonderful read.
√ Witch Bane by Tim Marquitz (2012). High Fantasy coming of age story with outrageously cool, confident, and marvelous action set-pieces. Carries you along like an AC/DC song at a party.
√ Bone Dance by Emma Bull (1991) is a nice, expressionist work of science fiction. Very evocative—reminded me of Bradbury.
√ Superman: Miracle Monday by Elliot S! Maggin (1981). Novels about superhero/icons are hard to do. No one’s Superman is better than Mr. Maggin’s. This story is wonderful, but (I have to say) Maggin’s classic “Superman: Last Son of Krypton” is still my favorite Superman story ever.
√ The Tiger of Geminia by McKayla Eaton (2017) is a neat urban fantasy short story that puts superhero culture front and center.
√ Emergency by Denis Johnson (1992) is a literary fantasy short work that—despite what I say above—does show the value of literary fiction (especially in short form– 200 pages would be tedious). Almost more a dark poem than a work of prose, I like this a lot. Highly recommend.
√ The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin (1973). This is one I would recommend for any award you care to give. Read it. No, right now.
√ The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges (1941) is a high-concept fantasy classic. Anyone who’s ever wanted to live or work in a multiverse owes this story a credit.
Be well, everyone.